Fathom 1985



Inside Cover



Pam Heaven (4)
Lex Gigeroff (2)
Joe Blades (3)
Andrew Little (2)
Babila Mutia
Lord Byron (3)
Ajay Heble
Margaret Heneghan
Robyn Gladwin (2)
Sean Bedell (2)
Marin Acker
Thorn Wells
Shandi Mitchell
Moritz Gaede
Lesley Wilson
Jane Everitt
David E. Ayer


Ajay Heble
Lori MacLean


Elizabeth Stephen


Elizabeth Stephen



Free Verse: Some Remarks

There is no freedom in art. –T.S. Eliot

There are no solutions. –E. G. Stephen

In the classical world the emphasis was on the spoken, not the written word. Great works of poetry were committed to memory and recited aloud. Words were not a private concern, but served a public function, for implicit in the oral tradition was a belief in the importance of the poet’s relation with his society: a relation which existed for the purpose of communicating and deepening man’s knowledge of himself and of the world. Though the poet in some sense stood apart from his fellow men, hearing the strains of a music inaudible to most, he was also always among men, not isolated by his art, but celebrating it in society.
     However, as there developed a greater emphasis on the written word, the relationship of the poet and his audience altered, becoming more abstract, and losing the element of shared experience. St. Augustine, in his Confessions, records with surprise the first time he saw a man reading a book silently, as if he recognized in this an important event. And in fact it was, for with the decline of the oral tradition, the poet begins to write in isolation, his gifts no longer affirmed in communal celebra­tion. Thus, a painful self-consciousness begins to emerge. The poet knows himself as such only by virtue of his creations, there no longer being public confirmation of the value of his identity.
     One cannot therefore ignore or dismiss as mere novelty the new forms and inventions of free verse, for behind its asserted freedom to choose and create its own means of expression is the rejection and, at times, deliberate mutilation of traditional poetic forms. A poet, in refusing to apprentice himself to tradi­tional forms of poetic expression, reveals an inability to trust not just the past but the present: he acknowledges no master but himself.
     In free verse it is the first line which provides the framework for the poem, giving it limitation and shape, a norm to which the other lines of the poem conform or deviate to provide a variance of metre and rhythm. It would seem, therefore, that the music of rhythm and meter found in traditional poetic forms continues to exist within the created pattern of a free verse poem. Yet a poem which creates itself, its standards of form and its deviation from them, seems to exist in isolation.
     The rhythm of meter and the complex relationship of words and images differentiates verse from the looseness of prose. Yet one of the forms of free verse is the prose poem, which is considered poetic simply by virtue of the language it employs. Roland Barthes, in his book Writing Degree Zero, sees the language of free verse as different from that of traditional metre in that “it carries its own nature within itself.”1 He takes for granted the essential difference between poetic and prosaic language and therefore insists that there need be no outward, formal sign indicating a separation which should be obvious. But how does a poet decide that the language he uses is of that mysterious substance which creates poetry?
     If formal signs are not necessary for the poet, it does not directly follow that they are dispensable for a reader. Barthes’ rejection of the necessity of outward identity arrogantly asserts the supremacy of the poet’s role in determining his own terms of judgement. He carelessly forgets the need for a measurable connection between the symbolic power of language and the essential human experience it attempts to convey. If a poetic experience or inspiration can only be validated by a poet’s peculiar and obscure notion of his own poetic form, then it is impossible to assign any definite qualities to a poetry which insists it is made of a language of substance, not of one of discernable attributes.
     In submitting to a prescribed form of metre and rhyme, such as that of the sonnet, for example, a poet acknowledges his connection with all other poets working within that same system. Adherence to a uniformity of the formal features of poetry gives a poet the freedom to explore the relationship of the acknowledged form to the essence of his own unique experience. Donald Wesling believes that a poet “accepts at least partial anonymity”2 by working within an accepted tradition, and that he is therefore “abandoning some of his identity to an abstract conception of the poem.”3 He contrasts this with free verse, in which the poet is free to assert that self which in all traditional verse is partially or entirely submerged. Yet to limit the function of poetry to self-exploration or self-­exposure is to deny its capacity for bringing a shared sense of revelation to both the poet and his audience.
     Control or understanding of a personal experience can only emerge with the poet’s conscious effort to measure his experience within a form which is comprehensible to the reader. Experimentation with form can become an end in itself and thus serve as a distraction – for the reader and perhaps even the poet – from the actual poetic experience.
     What is the principle of creativity which distinguishes modern or free verse from the traditional forms of poetry? Octavia Paz sees modern literature as invaded by the spirit of criticism. The writing of a poem “implies the construction of a separate, self­-sufficient reality.”4 But it is a reality which is always aware of its own isolation or sense of otherness. In denying itself, modern literature affirms its modernness, which is based on the critical altering of a tradition against which it constantly rebels. The forms embodying language and its meanings are therefore never the same, but are constantly being remolded to create new perceptions and new realities. Yet within this whirlwind of change there can be no stable principle or source which can give perspective or significance to the poet’s utterances.
     Therefore, in the modern age, how is one to find a form to articulate the chaos of poetic inspiration? The ability to affirm the existence of even a fragile thread of unity between the self and the world is denied by the modern principle of criticism, which fragments and divides the self from even its own perceptions of reality. The need for a violent stimulus to temporarily hold together the self and the experience it attempts to recreate in a poem is the result of a tradition “lapsing into superstition”5 and love of novelty for its own sake, according to T.S. Eliot. Octavio paz points to the essential difference between the modern dependence on novelty of form and the experimentation of the British seventeenth-century poets:

For them novelty was synonymous not with change but with amazement...novelty was not critical, nor did it imply the negation of tradition. On the contrary, it affirmed its continuity.6

     Measured against the chaos of perpetual change, the inventions of modern poetry do not affirm or amaze, but alienate the reader by presenting “a heap of broken images” without uncovering their underlying unity. Of course, a poet might assert that there is no unity, only man’s unfulfilled need for it. Ultimately free verse tries to answer this need for unity by producing its own fictions or pseudo-order within the framework of a self-creating experience. Its attempts to keep chaos at bay by mapping out its own boundaries does not always save free verse from a tendency towards formlessness. For Yvor Winters this “breaking down the limits of form” makes poetry “lose the capacity for fluid or highly complex relationships between words.”7
     In an age of highly apparent complexities, the obscurity of much of free verse merely masks the hollow echoes of a tradition both denying and deprived of its origin.


  1. Donald Wesling, “The Prosodies of Free Verse,” in Twentieth-­Century Literature in Retrospect, ed. Reuben A. Brower (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard Univ. Press, 1971), p. 164.
  2. Wesling, p. 186.
  3. Wesling, p. 186.
  4. Octavia Paz, Children of the Mire: Modern Poetry from Romanticism to the Avant-Garde, trans. Rachel Phillips (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard Univ. Press, 1974), p. 32.
  5. T.S. Eliot, “Reflections on Vers Libre,’ in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (New York, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), p. 32.
  6. Paz, p. 2.
  7. Yvor Winters, Primitivism and Décadence (New York, Arrow Editions, 1937), p. 5.


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